Ahead of First Meeting, Biden and Bennett Try to Dismantle a Jerusalem Landmine

The Biden administration is walking a fine line as it tries to balance a promise to the Palestinians to reopen the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem, and a desire to help Israel's new government maintain political stability

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U.S. President Joe Biden, last week.
U.S. President Joe Biden, last week. Credit: Evelyn Hockstein / Reuters

Three months ago, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced during a visit to Ramallah that the Biden administration will reopen the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem, which for years served as an unofficial American diplomatic mission to the Palestinians, until its termination by the Trump administration in 2018. Now, however, Israeli officials believe the Biden administration may significantly delay the move – and some even hope that the consulate will eventually be relocated farther away from its original location in central Jerusalem.

President Joe Biden originally planned to reopen the consulate as part of the restoration of ties between the U.S. and the Palestinian Authority, which were cut during the Trump presidency. The consulate historically served not only the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who reside in Jerusalem, but also Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza who required U.S. consular services.

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But the plan to reopen the consulate has not yet moved forward past rhetorical commitments. Israeli officials and sources close to the Biden administration say that the U.S. has been forced to slow down its plans due to a separate Biden priority — helping the fragile new Israeli government survive its first few months in office so as to prevent another round of elections in Israel. This has led the administration to slow down its plans regarding the consulate.

"The opening of the consulate may undermine Naftali Bennett's leadership. This is clear to the Americans," said an Israeli source involved in the talks to postpone the reopening of the compound. "Biden is currently interested in stability in Israel and doesn’t want to be perceived as the one who led Israel to another round of elections,” the same source explained.

Israeli officials also point out that the administration, at this time, has little to gain on the Palestinian side by moving forward with the plan: even if the consulate will be reopened, there are no realistic prospects at the moment for serious Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. “It is clear to the administration that in the foreseeable future there is no chance of any peace process with the Palestinians and therefore there is no reason to hurry up with diplomatic gestures,” explained the Israeli source.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, in May. Credit: Pool / Reuters

Israel would be happy to see Biden completely withdraw from the planned reopening, or alternatively, that the consulate be moved elsewhere, to a site less sensitive than the former location in the heart of Jerusalem, near the city's landmark luxury hotels and close to the walls of the old city.

One Israeli source went so far as to suggest that ever since the United States has recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital, “reopening the consulate is illogical” and would fuel Palestinian demands regarding Jerusalem in future negotiations. But the main reason Israel’s new government wishes to see Biden take back the promise is political: Bennett and his coalition partners fear that the reopening would play into the hands of opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu and foment tensions within the nascent government.

Former President Reuven Rivlin raised this issue during his meeting with Biden last May in Washington and got the impression that the administration has no intention of cancelling the plan. The issue came up last month when Israel’s National Security Adviser Eyal Hulata and Bennett's diplomatic adviser Shimrit Meir were in Washington to prepare for the upcoming Biden-Bennett meeting scheduled to take place at the White House at the end of the month. The meeting will be the first between the leaders, both of whom recently took office. 

At the moment, Israel is trying to gain as much time as possible. Bennett has received signals that the administration will likely halt the plan until his government can pass a state budget in the Knesset, a move that will increase its stability and make it more difficult for any single member of the coalition to bring it down over diplomatic or political disagreements. The administration’s willingness to wait until after a budget is passed was reported last month by Axios.

The Biden administration finds itself in a delicate position: It must attempt to push forward commitments previously made to the Palestinians while avoiding actions that would fuel a domestic crisis for the new Israeli government led by Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, which was sworn in only in June after Israel's fourth election in two years.

The U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem on Agron Street, which was terminated by former U.S. President Donald Trump in 2018. Credit: Magister / CC-BY-SA-3.0

That dilemma, as well as the administration's desire to strike a balance, was also evident last week, when the administration offered a soft and moderate response to Israel’s announcement of a new slate of settlement construction. Sources in Jerusalem told Haaretz that this unimpressive American condemnation was in fact expected by the Israeli side, as part of quiet understandings between the two governments.

A senior Israeli official noted that parts of the State Department's response to Haaretz calling for calm and the easing of tensions with the Palestinians already correspond with the new government’s policy towards the PA, including the approval of hundreds of building permits for Palestinians and a major expansion of the number of Palestinian workers in Israel, both done with an aim of garnering stability and good relations with the Palestinian leadership. 

Another factor that has complicated the debate over the consulate is the uncertainty surrounding when Tom Nides will be confirmed as ambassador to Israel. It is believed that U.S. officials do not want Nides' first weeks on the job to be focused on the inevitable controversy surrounding the consulate’s reopening. This could serve as an argument within the administration for further delaying the move.

A long delay, combined with Israeli statements against the mission's ever being reopened, could over time pose domestic complications for the Biden administration and foment criticism among Democratic lawmakers who may perceive the continued closure of the consulate as the administration's failure to reverse Trump’s policy on the matter.

In response to a question on the subject from Haaretz, a State Department official said: "As Secretary Blinken said in May, the United States will be moving forward with the process to reopen our consulate in Jerusalem. We do not have additional details to share at this time.”

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